Balance of power

More Kerr: Western Conference preseason rankings

It wasn't long ago that the Eastern Conference was the laughingstock of the NBA, with the West boasting the league's top five or six teams. But a lot has happened the last two years, and it appears the NBA has established a healthy balance, showcasing powerhouses in both conferences.

Between Detroit's surprise title in 2004, Shaquille O'Neal's trade to Miami and the rise of LeBron James in Cleveland, the East has made a huge leap forward and appears ready to challenge the West for superiority. While it may not have as much depth from top to bottom, the East boasts three very serious championship contenders and a couple of dark horses.

Here's how I see the Eastern Conference – ranked one through 15 – going into training camp.

Miami
Miami

1.Miami Heat – The Heat made drastic changes, adding Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and Gary Payton. Stan Van Gundy will have to be a chemistry professor, but as long as Shaq and Dwyane Wade are healthy, Miami is the team to beat in the East.

Indiana
Indiana

2.Indiana Pacers – Winning 44 games under last season's circumstances was remarkable. With Ron Artest back, the Pacers could very well be a championship team – but are they mature enough?

Detroit
Detroit

3.Detroit Pistons – The Pistons bring everyone back – except for Larry Brown – and they're the toughest team in the NBA. The key will be how well they can adjust to Flip Saunders and his more offensive-minded philosophy.

Cleveland
Cleveland

4.Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron will be the best player in the NBA within two years. And now he has some help in Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall. The Cavaliers could be the most improved team in the league.

New Jersey
New Jersey

5.New Jersey Nets – Nets fans got a taste of the Richard Jefferson, Vince Carter, Jason Kidd trio in the playoffs. Now they'll see them – together and healthy – for a full season. And with Nenad Kristic and Marc Jackson on the front line, this could be a very good club.

Chicago
Chicago

6.Chicago Bulls – Can the Bulls follow up their fairytale season from a year ago? Yes – as long as they continue to defend as hard as they did last season.

Philadelphia
Philadelphia

7.Philadelphia 76ers – The Sixers are at their best when they're blocking shots and playing the passing lanes. Can Chris Webber fit into that scheme?

New York
New York

8.New York Knicks – Larry Brown will make this team better defensively, and if Eddy Curry is healthy, they're really going to improve offensively. The Knicks are suddenly very interesting.

Milwaukee
Milwaukee

9.Milwaukee Bucks – The Bucks will be much improved after adding Andrew Bogut, Bobby Simmons and welcoming back T.J. Ford. That might just be enough to sneak into the playoffs.

Washington
Washington

10.Washington Wizards – Losing Hughes hurts, but Ernie Grunfeld did a nice job replacing him with Antonio Daniels and Caron Butler. But do the Wizards have enough up front?

Boston
Boston

11.Boston Celtics – The Celtics' hopes depend on their young talent – especially Al Jefferson. He's going to be very good, but he's still a year or two away.

Toronto
Toronto

12.Toronto RaptorsChris Bosh is the best player nobody seems to know about. Still, is he good enough to lift the Raptors out of the Atlantic Division basement?

Orlando
Orlando

13.Orlando MagicDwight Howard will be a force, but who's going to throw him the ball? This club needs a point guard so that Steve Francis can slide over and play the two.

Atlanta
Atlanta

14.Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks should be improved. Then again, they only won 13 games last season, so how could they not improve? Joe Johnson leads a group of talented, athletic youngsters, but there's a lot of work ahead.

Charlotte
Charlotte

15.Charlotte Bobcats – The Tar Heels, I mean the Bobcats, have an in-state feel with Raymond Felton and Sean May. But this isn't the ACC. The learning process continues.